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Sunday, July 1, 2012


At the age of ten, on a camping trip with my family, during a rainy night, I felt I glimpsed the abyss of eternity. The awe or dread or apprehension I felt then was in no way affected, as I recall, by the fact that I had been brought up in a Protestant Christian church and had heard about heaven and hell since infancy. The main line of Christian thought has always regarded the afterlife as the true life, succeeding the present “vale of tears.” It seemed to me, though, that people most commonly acted as though the Christian consolation were feeble indeed when confronted with loss. Centuries ago, Sir Thomas Browne noted the gap between Christians’ professed faith and their apparently more real convictions, observing that most, though “believing or knowing that truth, have lastingly denied it in their practice and conversation.” He notes that “were the happiness of the next world as closely apprehended as the felicities of this, it were a martyrdom to live.” [1]

It is undeniably true, all the same, that, since palaeolithic times when bodies were often buried facing eastward corpses and daubed with red ochre, people have generally sought to believe in life after death. Freed by the total lack of evidence for any such thing, people have constructed a belief in the survival of personality and, even more fanciful, in a realm in the heavens and another under the earth in every part of the globe throughout history. [2]

People’s uneasiness about mortality is expressed in many oral cultures by practices regarding the dead with a combination of veneration, what is called “ancestor worship,” and of anxious fear, expressed in many ceremonies for insuring that the dead (including prey animals) do not harm the living. These attitudes do not address the mortality of the living, approaching the dead rather as objects made suddenly foreign, requiring the development of other customs, sometimes logically incompatible, that allow people to continue living while knowing they themselves will die.

Grave goods indicate a belief in an afterlife similar to this world. In ancient China and Peru numerous retainers were sacrificed to accompany high-ranking deceased men. The extravagant, even neurotic, practices of Egypt indicate an anxious attempt to pursue the good life beyond the grave at least among those who could pay the bill.

On the other hand, in a number of early societies, the afterlife offered fewer amenities. The sheol of Hebrew scripture is a place of darkness conceived as under the earth at the greatest distance from Jehovah. There the rephaim or shades dwell feeble and emptied of individuality, rather like the “impetuous impotent dead” in Pound’s rendering of Homer.
A similar idea of the dead as etiolated spirits seems to have been current in early Germanic religion, though a differentiation eventually appears among Valhalla, Hel, and Niflhel.

Some traditions -- including Hindus, most Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Pythagoreans, certain Arctic peoples, and, according to Caesar and Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor, the Celts, -- prefer to imagine merit-based metempsychosis. (In this view, it may be that the rapidly growing human population, a source of concern to some, can only be the result of spiritual improvement among the great apes.) The theory of the transmigration of souls is attractive also to those who fancy a prior career as an Egyptian queen or a Tibetan lama.

The karmic rebirth system, of course, assures retributive justice, but, for those who expect only a single lifetime God’s justice is doled out in rewards and punishments in the legalistic afterlife of the Abrahamic religions, ancient Egypt, and Zoroastrianism. Some arbiter is imagined who rights all the wrongs that accumulate in life, rebalancing the books until they come out right like a moral accountant at the end of a karmic run.

All of these wish fulfillment fantasies are rather poignant representations of the human’s passionate attachment to life. The sense of impending dread associated with mortality is the necessary concomitant of the natural human delight in springtime regreening, strawberries, cream, and caresses (whether from a lover’s hand or from a late springtime zephyr). For some images like these are themselves sufficient to maintain a point of delight. Still, banishing all the mind’s apprehension about dissolution is a tricky maneuver indeed. While it reportedly has been done, most authorities in Asia and in Europe seem to agree that losing joy in life is an inevitable concomitant to losing fear of death whether the serene state be called apatheia, ataraxia, or Buddhist non-attachment.

Still, a number of thinkers have maintained that death must mean a total end from the point of view of the individual consciousness. One finds a positive assertion of the materialist view of death in Democritus whose words were remembered by Epictetus who simply declared that, “Why are ears of corn produced? Is it not that they may become dry? And do they not become dry that they may be reaped? . . . But this [would be] a curse upon ears of corn, never to be reaped. So we must know that in the case of men too it is a curse not to die, just the same as not to be ripened and not to be reaped. But since we must be reaped, and we also know that we are reaped, we are vexed at it; for we neither know what we are nor have we studied what belongs to man, as those who have studied horses know what belongs to horses.”

The materialist approach of the Epicureans implied this view, and it is explicit in Diogenes Laertius’ [3] report of Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines: “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.” According to Lucretius [4] “Divorced from the body, the soul cannot have either eyes or nose or hands or tongue or ears, and therefore cannot possess either sentience or life.” Also, “Nature rebukes those who complain about death. Hell and its torments exist only in our life.” Certainly true in logical terms, such conclusions meet potent resistance from the psyche desperate to cling to life as the partial survey of alternatives I have already provided provides ample evidence.

The Stoics were less systematic in their beliefs about the afterlife but, To Epictetus, since death occurs independent of our will and we cannot influence it in any way, it is foolish to spend time considering it. To him it is absurd to wish to avoid death. [5] For Seneca the Younger [6] “No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.”

A number of philosophers profess a similarly reasonable agnosticism concerning the afterlife, finding sufficient challenge in conducting one’s affairs while alive. In the Analects [7] Confucius makes his priority clear: “How can one know about death before he knows clearly about life?” When asked if the dead are aware of the ceremonies performed for them, he pointedly replied, “There is no present urgency about the point. Hereafter you will know it for yourself.” And in this he was surely correct.

In contrast to the focus and simplicity of that great “transmitter who invented nothing” but who supported all the traditional rituals, Zhuangzi is said to have banged on a pot and sang when his wife died saying, “It’s just like the procession of the four seasons” which, while doubtless true, would be insufficient solace for many. He displays, in fact, a more poignant sense of loss upon the passing of his disciple Huizi , lamenting that he no longer has one with whom to talk. One suspects an unsettled attitude even in the mind of this great sage, as he repeatedly faces death with questions: “How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?” “How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life?” Liezi asks a skull: Only you and I know that you have never died and you have never lived. Are you really unhappy? Am I really enjoying myself?” “Among the dead there are no rulers . . .subjects . . .chores. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!” “The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death.” [8]

Contrary to many religious leaders, the Buddha always avoided pontificating on god and the afterlife, providing instead the most practical and pointed response to such interests. He asked whether, if one had been hit by a poisoned arrow, one would be wise to inquire into the arrow’s composition, dimensions, and design. His interlocutor replied, “Of course, I would have the arrow pulled out as quickly as possible.” And the Buddha concluded “That is wise, for the task before us is the solving of life's problems; until the problems are solved, these questions are of secondary importance.” [9] Though the Republic offers the myth of Er with an elaborate scenario leading to retributive justice and the Phaedo offers arguments for immortality, the Socrates of the Apology may be the wiser for claiming less: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our own ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” said no one knows if death ends the individual personality.

No one surely, can be satisfied with such consolation as Whitman reincarnation in the grass or Shakespeare’s immortality through words. With children and the persistence of DNA codes there is a more significant biological immortality of sorts, but the ego remains in its final cul de sac.

Unlikely though it seem, I find myself returning to the Christian apologist with whom I started. Sir Thomas Browne allowed himself sufficient latitude and honesty that he found himself attacked for heterodoxy and included in the Roman Catholics’ Index Librorum Prohibitorum, yet the same uncertainty may have been what gave him the sensitivity to offer even less credulous mortals a way out. His magnificent Hydrotaphia or Urne Buriall surveys burial customs and beliefs at length. Impressed by the ancients who could even choose death expecting mere dissolution, he concludes “Certainly such spirits as could contemn death, when they expected no better being after, would have scorned to live had they known any.” He goes on to conjure a spell of words: “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarianism. Not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the Provinciall Guardians, or tutelary Observators” [10] It is difficult to leave off quoting, his lines are so liquid, but, though the personalities of those buried in urns are irrecoverable, the elegant meditations of the seventeenth century physician remain, and they bear directly on the facts of mortality as they show a sensitive intelligent consciousness exerted to its limit, fully human, fully alive in the face of approaching death, inquiring, composing, making aesthetic judgments just as though it really mattered, even as the clock ticks the sever-fewer seconds that remain. His energy and interest in the task of confronting the given terms of existence ignores the sensible remark of Lucretius: “We have nothing to fear in death, that one who no longer exists cannot become miserable, and that it makes not one speck of difference whether or not he has ever been born, once his mortal life has been snatched away...” Constrained to at least approximate Christian orthodoxy, with his style alone, Browne provides a workable model for many who find themselves constitutionally incapable of assenting to fairy tales, yet with a sense of beauty and wonder and of the exquisite potential of the mind intact though it last but only a day.

1. Chapter 4, Urne-Buriall.

2. David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave does a good job of providing a materialist explanation.

3. Bk. 10.

4. Bk. 3. De rerum natura.

5. Bk. 2, Ch. 6 and Bk. 3, Ch. 6.

6. In Epistle IV.

7. XI, 11.

8. These are from Burton Watson’s readable version, on pages 113-117, 42-3 and 76. I have rewritten the names from Watson’s Wade-Giles.

9. This is found in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta (The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya) which is part of the middle length discourses (Majjhima Nikaya), one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka.

10. Ch. 5


  1. Always good to read original and appreciative words on my home City's greatest literary figure, thanks. Only Browne's 'Religio Medici' was placed on the index, nothing else of his writings. 'Urn-Burial' has for centuries been admired and praised for its stylist purity, it is however only one half of the 1658 diptych. 'The Garden of Cyrus' although admittedly stylistically weaker, mirrors and answers the doubts, speculations and uncertainties of 'Urn-Burial' offering the reader truths and scientific certainties and may well have been viewed as the obverse of the literary coin forged by the author.

  2. Take it easy on the "late springtime zephyrs"..., Otherwise, well done sir!